By Michael Lanza
Do you need an ultralight backpack? Many backpackers might answer “no” when their answer should logically be “yes.” These packs aren’t just for thru-hikers. Typically weighing roughly between two and three pounds empty, ultralight packs have support for carrying 25 to 35 pounds—making them ideal for more than just ultralight backpacking. For many backpackers, that represents the range of pack weight they either carry on most trips—or could carry on most trips, with smart packing and reasonably light gear.
In other words, an ultralight pack just may be perfect for you. And this article covers the best ones out there today. My picks are based on extensive field testing of many packs of all types over more than 25 years of reviewing gear, formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine, and many years for this blog.
As I wrote in my “5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” when backpacking ultralight or lightweight—which describes probably at least 80 percent of my backpacking trips—I want a backpack with low weight and minimal features like pockets and zippers, because I just don’t need more than that. Still, I like the convenience of quick access for some items, like a lid pocket or, more often, side and hipbelt pockets for snacks, map, sunglasses, and sunblock, plus a large front pocket where I can stuff items like a jacket.
The pack you choose will depend on personal preferences regarding design features, price, weight, and capacity.
Ultralight Packs Defined
Some ultralight backpackers assert that only packs weighing under about two pounds empty are truly ultralight packs. (Some of the comments at the bottom of this story delve into that.) The semantic argument aside, packs that light are generally frameless. I have used frameless packs from various brands that employ the same basic design, including on a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, when we had our base pack weight (everything but food and water) under 15 pounds.
Frameless packs are very minimalist, with a comfortable carrying capacity of about 20 to 25 pounds at best, and that assumes the user is very diligent about loading the pack to achieve optimal distribution of weight. A frameless pack with a lightly padded hipbelt that also lacks structure does not support weight; the pack essentially hangs off your back, requiring your back and shoulders to bear the weight.
I prefer ultralight packs with some kind of frame structure, like those in this review, because they distribute the pack’s weight in a way that your body can carry more comfortably for hours on the trail, day after day. A frame helps shift most pack weight onto your hips, which is far more comfortable than having weight hang off your shoulders. I think many people would notice the difference, especially with more than 20 pounds in the pack. In fact, even hiking daypacks designed for carrying more than 15 pounds have a frame.
Reviewed below are several backpacks that stand out in this category. Please share your comments or questions about them, or suggestions for your own favorite ultralight pack, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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The Osprey Exos 58 ($220, 2 lbs. 11 oz.) or Exos 48 ($200, 2 lbs. 5 oz.), and the newer women’s Eja 58 and Eja 48, have long ranked among the best ultralight backpacks. I’ve used and liked the Exos 58 a lot since it first came out in 2008, including on a four-day, 86-mile backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park and on a weeklong hut trek in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, and I more recently took the updated 2018 version of the Exos 58 on a six-day, 94-mile hike through Glacier National Park.
The top-loading Exos and Eja carry 30 pounds or more comfortably thanks to an alloy perimeter frame and a pronounced bell shape that transfer much of the pack weight onto your hips, where you want it, and they have the capacity for weeklong trips and ultralight thru-hiking. Their trampoline-style back panel permits cooling air circulation. At just over 2.5 pounds, they have smart features like good compression, a removable lid, voluminous exterior pockets, and a handy trekking poles attachment on the left shoulder strap.
Read my review of the Osprey Exos 58 and Eja 58.
Also worthy of a close look are Osprey’s “super ultralight” packs, the men’s Levity 60 and the women’s Lumina 60 ($270, 1.9 lbs.), which Osprey says carry up to 25 pounds. There are smaller sizes, the Levity 45 and Lumina 45 ($250, 1.8 lbs.). Osprey says these packs are definitely for committed ultralighters, primarily thru-hikers who are carrying extremely minimalist kits—in other words, for lighter loads than the Exos/Eja.
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The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($365) weighs just two pounds, has removable aluminum stays and a harness system that I found comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds, and is made with waterproof (and practically bulletproof) Dyneema fabric. Its minimalist design features three roomy, exterior mesh pockets and zippered hipbelt pockets, and a roll-top closure with top and side compression for stabilizing under-filled loads. For its weight, it offers unique carrying comfort and capacity for long trips.
Read my complete review of the 3400 Windrider.
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The Gregory men’s Optic 58 and women’s Octal 55 ($210, 2 lbs. 7 oz.), and the smaller Optic 48 and Octal 45 ($190), are designed for backpackers who want to go ultralight without switching to a stripped-down style of backpack. I found it comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds backpacking the Grand Canyon’s rugged Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim.
These packs sport six external pockets, including two on the hipbelt and a large, stretch-mesh front pocket, and useful features like a quick attachment on the left shoulder strap for trekking poles or sunglasses. Gregory’s attention to comfort in its first ultralight backpack is reflected in the aluminum perimeter wire with an HDPE framesheet and leaf-spring lumbar pad, which distributes most of the pack’s load across the hips and delivers support for carrying 30 to 35 pounds; and the trampoline-style Aerospan suspension, a tensioned, highly ventilated back panel that allows allow air movement across your sweaty back.
Read my review of the Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55.
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The signature feature of the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 ($200) is a compression system that allows you to alter the pack’s capacity to fit whatever you’re carrying, making it more stable with a small load. At 2 lbs. 9 oz., it’s heavier than others but still a legitimate ultralight backpack, and I’ve found it comfortable hauling 30 to 35 pounds, thanks in part to a sturdier (though still streamlined) hipbelt than is found in some ultralight packs. It has quick, one-zipper access to the main compartment, and five external pockets (lid, side, and hipbelt).
Read my review of the Flex Capacitor 40-60.
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The REI Flash 45 ($159) is not only a steal, but it sports nice design features for ultralight backpacking, including six external pockets; it also weighs close to three pounds, heavier than others listed here. A steel, internal perimeter frame with one horizontal stay, plus a contoured hipbelt and well-padded shoulder straps make it comfortable carrying 25 to 30 pounds, and REI’s UpLift compression system squeezes the load from the bottom to draw it closer to your hips. The larger version is the Flash 55.
Read my complete review of the Flash 45.
The ULA Circuit ($255) weighs in at 2 lbs. 9 oz., but it’s spacious at 68 liters, and its roll-top closure extends farther than many competitors, giving you more capacity when needed. With a carbon fiber and Delrin suspension, a dense foam frame and an aluminum stay, it will carry up to 35 pounds, and the hipbelt and shoulder straps come in multiple sizes for customizing the fit for men or women. ULA’s 400 Robic fabric is highly durable, and the pack has a huge external front pocket.
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 ($225, 1 lb. 14.5 oz. for medium pack with medium belt) has more capacity than many two-pound packs, comes in a wide range of torso lengths and hipbelt sizes, and has side pockets made of more-durable fabric, rather than mesh. It has a removable internal frame and seven pockets, and comes in three torso and three hipbelt sizes. Watch for my upcoming review of the Mariposa 60.
Depending on how much weight you intend to carry, two other, more-versatile backpacks that weigh just ounces more than some of these, yet carry more weight comfortably and have more features, are the Granite Gear Blaze 60 (read my review) and The North Face Banchee 50 (read my review).
See also my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” “Video: How to Load a Backpack,” all of my reviews of backpacking gear and ultralight backpacking gear, and my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for numerous stories with my picks for best gear and tips on buying gear.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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